Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 26, 1998
Head: David Mamet
Sect: News; Domestic
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
On this archive edition, we have an interview with David Mamet. He wrote and directed the current art house hit "The Spanish Prisoner." He wrote the screenplay for the recent political satire "Wag The Dog," which has just come out on video.
He also wrote and directed the films "House of Games," "Things Change," and "Homicide," and wrote the screenplays for "The Edge," "The Untouchables," "The Verdict," and "Hoffa." Mamet's plays include "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Oliana" (ph), "Speed the Plow," and "American Buffalo."
How did this great writer get started professionally? Writing fantasies for a men's magazine. That's just one of the things I learned about Mamet in his 1996 collection of essays and remembrances called "Make Believe Town."
When I spoke with him after its publication, he read an excerpt of his essay "Girl Copy" about the year he spent in the mid-'70s writing for the men's magazine called "Oui."
DAVID MAMET, PLAYWRIGHT, ESSAYIST, POET, AND SCREENWRITER: All over the country, adolescent boys and frustrated married men were looking at sexy photos of sexy naked women, and these men were having fantasies about them. Here I was getting 20 grand a year to look at the same photos and create those fantasies, and it felt to me like work.
I would be given "the blues" -- blue and gray first runs of what would later be glorious color spreads of the said naked women, and I would tack them on the cork-lined walls and I would strive to have fantasies about them, for it was all a fiction -- all that stuff; their names were made up. Their biographies, their likes and peeves. It was whole cloth, like the letters to the editor. Somebody made it up, and that year, that was my job.
I think my personal best was "Kotcha" (ph) with her pants down" and there was also "Anna is a palindrome" -- but I'm not sure if that was mine. I did write: "Tolstoy said that a nap after dinner is silver; a nap before dinner is gold. Gretchen prefers a nap to dinner altogether." Workmanlike, as you see.
GROSS: David Mamet, did working at this men's magazine help you at all as a writer? Or prepare you for the future in any way?
MAMET: It paid the rent. That was a great help. And it was humbling in that a lot of the stuff was difficult for me to do, and I had to apply myself to it because I was getting paid for it, which is different that writing completely on one's own. If something's not working, you just say "oh heck, I'll believe I'll have another cup of coffee."
And also, it in a certain way gave me confidence, because the editor of the magazine at that time, Mark Zussman (ph), came to me and he said: "this is something you can do. I'd like you to work at the magazine, although you've never done it before. And you'll pick it up as you go along." So that, in the long run, gave me a lot of confidence.
GROSS: Now were you the young, budding serious writer at the magazine?
MAMET: Oh, no. We were all the young budding serious writers.
That was one of the nice things about working at the magazine. Everybody was a serious writer to boot, and he or she -- there were a lot of women who worked there -- was working there to pay the rent; and everyone took it very, very seriously and was very -- quite conscientious. And it was a great atmosphere.
GROSS: Now, when you were making up these fantasies for the nude photos, why couldn't you write your own fantasies?
MAMET: Well, 'cause I was trying too hard. I mean, I'd fallen into, I think, the error of a lot of beginning writers, which I'd never experienced before because I just sat -- picked up a pencil and piece of paper and sat down and started writing plays. It never occurred to me that there was a right way to do it, because I -- I was somewhere between auto-didact and an idiot savant.
But then when I came to working for the magazine, I thought, well OK, I must apply myself. I must think harder; think better, which is of course the death of all inspiration.
GROSS: Now, you also -- well, if you weren't writing your own fantasies, did you feel like you had to make up other people's? In other words, did you start writing things that you didn't believe for a second?
MAMET: Well, I -- I don't know. I think I went back and forth between trying to be too cute and trying to be correct. And as I say later on in his essay, my -- most of my time when I was working at that magazine was devoted to my own inner fantasies about what must go on at that magazine at night after everybody goes home...
MAMET: ... and why I was being excluded. And I could never make the connection between those -- between those rampantly libidious fantasies and the work which I was getting paid to do. If I'd put them together, I would have been able to go home earlier.
GROSS: So do you think other people actually had a wild sex life outside of the office?
MAMET: Well actually, I was having a wild sex life outside of the office, but the -- and I'm sure they were too, but neither mine nor theirs had anything to do with -- with the work at the office.
GROSS: David Mamet is my guest. He has a new collection of essays called Make Believe Town.
You have another essay in your new collection that's -- well, it's actually the title essay Make Believe Town and it's all about screenplays and writing screenplays and what writing screenplays has become. And you say that nowadays, screenplays are really written for bored script readers, instead of being written for the directors who are actually going to make the movies. Who are the script readers and how do you think this is changing the way screenplays are written?
MAMET: The script readers are bright young people from the better universities, 'cause they're very coveted jobs and they're -- they're like boot camp for studio people; where the entering aspirants or the entering employees are inducted into the ethos of the organization, which is to accept the predictable only and to ratify only the predictable. I mean, there's nothing wrong with that. I mean, the movie business is a business just like any other. And these people are as entitled to their rice bowl as I or you.
It's just that it becomes kind of frustrating to, as a writer, to deal with them.
GROSS: Give me an example of the kind of writing that you think is written for bored scriptwriters that doesn't really make sense in a screenplay; that doesn't really work in a screenplay.
MAMET: Well, I'll give you -- I'll give you an example which may seem bizarre or gratuitous, but to me sums up the whole problem. For example, if you say: "there's a new -- it's -- we're gonna stop one scene. It says: "blah, blah, blah; she gets up from the table and closes the door. Next scene: interior restaurant, later."
Well, this makes sense if it's a novel, but the question which the director has to ask is: how do we know it's later? It's very fine on the page to say how we know it's later, but if it's important for the audience to know it's later, it's the job of the scriptwriter to tell the director how the audience will understand it's later. Because the screenplay finally is not a novel. It's -- as I say, it's a schematic.
GROSS: Right. Right. Now, you also write about sex scenes within movies, and how the narrative in some films is just a kind of function of transition to get from one sex scene or one violence scene to another.
GROSS: It seems that sex scenes also just make you uncomfortable, as -- not only as a filmmaker, but as a viewer.
MAMET: Yeah, they do -- they -- because it's not -- because I -- I love actors. I spent my whole life with actors and my closest friends -- they're my extended family. My wife is an actress.
And to ask an actor or an actress to do those scenes is -- it's not acting. It's pretending -- it's engaging in some form of pornography. It's -- to ask them to pretend to have sex. And as I say in the essay, if you look closely, you'll see that they're really not enjoying it.
And it's -- they're faking it because how could one not? I mean, why would one want to take one's deepest feelings, which have nothing whatever to do with the movie, and parade them for the sake of employment?
GROSS: Do you think that erotic scenes are almost always gratuitous in movies?
MAMET: Well, I don't know. I mean, a lot has been written and said over the years about the difference between eroticism and pornography, meaning eroticism is what I like and pornography is what you like. So I mean, there are some deeply -- I'm trying to think of a wonderful erotic moment in a movie, and I probably could if -- as soon as the program's over, I'm going to go home and think about it.
Are they always gratuitous? I'll tell you what they are, is that they're -- it's always very, very easy and that's like they used to say, and they still say, it's become part of the American language: cut to the chase. What that meant is: when you don't know what to do, you cut to the wagon rolling down the hill, or the guy riding for the sheriff or the girl escaping from the villain, running down the railroad track. That's what you do when you don't know what to do.
Another thing you can do when you don't know what to do is cut to a scene of people pretending to have sex with each other.
GROSS: My guest is playwright, screenwriter, and director David Mamet. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
Let's get back to our 1996 interview with David Mamet.
Now, you've updated Chekhov. You've done contemporary translations of Chekhov -- for for instance, "Uncle Vanya." And our listeners might have seen that on "Vanya on 42nd Street," which used your adaptation.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about what it's been like to update Chekhov? Did you go back to the original Russian or to English translations of it?
MAMET: Well I mean, I don't know that I updated it. Perhaps I did. But what I did -- I've done three of the four major plays. I haven't done "The Seagull," but I hope to do that this year, God willing; was I -- I went back and commissioned or had commissioned a literal translation from the Russian by a commercial translator, or the equivalent, as if it were a dry document, where I was able to get -- I was very lucky in the people with -- who worked with me on this -- able to get alternative -- an alternative reading of a phrase, the connotation of a phrase, the association that one might have with a phrase, or a word.
And I was told by all of these people that the writing in Russian is very, very straightforward and simple. And I found it rather -- rather easy to do and quite a lot of fun. I don't know that I felt like I was updating it, but perhaps that's what I was doing.
GROSS: What did you want to do with it?
MAMET: I wanted to capture my understanding, which of course not speaking Russian, has got to be (Unintelligible) at best, of the dramatic rhythm involved in the plays. I mean, I spent a lot of time living up in a small town in the country, and one says five times a week: "my God, isn't that just like Chekhov?"
You know, of the lassitude, or the languor, or the -- or the bizarre, in-bred, magnificent understanding of life or of the ongoing droll relationships. And it all feels like that wonderful long, long, long endless summer evening in Vermont. And has that kind of rhythm to it.
And that's what I always felt about Chekhov and that's what I was trying to bring forward in a English translation -- stroke -- adaptation.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you can remember any of the transliteration that you used, and what you wrote based on that? Any of the lines that came out of that?
MAMET: There's a speech in "The Cherry Orchard" where Agayev (ph), who's the brother of, I guess, Madame Renyefskaya, who owns the cherry orchard. And he's talking to his bookcase. This is a speech that happens in the middle of Myvenguyev (ph). He tends to give speeches. He tends to go on at length at the drop of a hat.
And he's talking -- he's talking about himself as he usually is. And he says: "I am a man of the '80s. Who praises that time? No one. But I lived through it and gained convictions and suffered for them. And not for nothing does the peasant love me. Why? I know his ways. I know him." And the girl says: "oh, Uncle, please shut up."
So what I was trying to do in that speech, I guess, is what I'm trying to do throughout, is to gain some -- get some dramatic rhythm into the speech. And the Italians have a proverb: to translate is to betray.
GROSS: Now -- now, the line "and not for nothing does the peasant love me"...
GROSS: ... that isn't the way people normally speak. Did you mean that to sound unlike normal conversation? Because it's a speech that he's making, more or less?
MAMET: Well, actually it's a feminine ending on a line of iambic pentameter, it seems to me. But I think -- well, it's -- to me, that is the way that people speak. I mean, here's a guy who's a rather stilted guy, and he's writing in late Victorian times, of 1896 I believe, and is speaking of the time gone by.
So if I'm going to be that guy, which is what I have to do if I gotta write about that guy, that's the way I would speak, if I'm living in 1896 and speaking about the days gone by.
GROSS: Right. So you were writing it for the period. Now, you mention iambic pentameter. Do you often write in iambic pentameter?
MAMET: I think so, because it seems to me that's the way that people speak.
GROSS: Is that true? Is that the way that people speak? Is that true? Is that the way that people speak. Well...
MAMET: It seems to me that that's how people speak. See.
GROSS: It seems to me that that's how people speak. Was that -- was that iambic?
GROSS: What was iambic about it?
MAMET: Da da da da da da da da da. That's a line of perfect iambic pentameter.
GROSS: But "pentameter" means that there'd be 10 syllables, right?
MAMET: No, five.
MAMET: But look here, you know, I could sit and talk to you all day, but finally at the end, what would we say? That you and I had sat and that we spoke, but what we'd spoken of -- what would that be? The time, the place, the radio, the day -- OK, so you see here I'm on my way to a sonnet that's all iambic pentameter.
GROSS: For people who don't remember, what -- iambic pentameter is that kind of like loping every other syllable has an accent sound?
MAMET: It's -- iambic -- "iam" means it's a foot in the -- of short-long, short-long, short-long, short-long, short-long -- put five of those feet together. "Iam" just means that foot, short-long. And "pentameter" just means there's five of them.
GROSS: So, do you think about that when you're speaking? When you're just having a conversation, whether it's iambic or not?
GROSS: Just when you're writing, you do?
MAMET: Yeah. None of us think about it, but we tend to speak that way. I mean, most of the blues is written that way, too. I hate to see that evening sun goes down. That's iambic pentameter.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So do you read a lot of Shakespeare, who wrote in iambic pentameter? Or, is that kind of irrelevant to why you do it?
MAMET: Well, I don't read a lot of Shakespeare 'cause I find -- and maybe you've had this experience -- there aren't enough pictures.
GROSS: That's an interesting criticism.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So, what do you read then?
MAMET: Oh, I read everything. I read everything I can get my hands on.
MAMET: I like to read a lot of trash, especially in the summer; and like to read a lot of -- a lot of novels; a lot of -- a lot of them -- a lot of American and British literature.
GROSS: Now, what kind of trash do you enjoy?
MAMET: Oh, I like it all -- like Tom Clancy, I eat that stuff up.
MAMET: Oh, sure.
GROSS: The espionage stuff?
MAMET: All that stuff. I love it.
GROSS: Now, you wouldn't want to make a movie of one of his books, right? I mean, you wouldn't be interested in it on that level would you?
MAMET: Sure, why not? I mean, I love genre movies. I think that's what the movies are good for. They're good for melodrama and they're good for -- for suspense.
MAMET: You know, the gangster film, the science fiction film, the conspiracy film. I love all those forms.
GROSS: 'Course, you're the last person anyone would get for it, right? Like, we're doing a high-tech espionage thriller. Let's get David Mamet to direct.
MAMET: Well, I don't know. Probably -- I mean, I've written a lot of that stuff, it seems to me.
GROSS: Have you?
MAMET: I wrote The Untouch -- well, I wrote The Untouchables as a genre film, gangster film.
GROSS: But that's more in your -- in your territory 'cause it's like the -- the urban hardboiled type of thing, you know -- urban crime as opposed to high-tech espionage.
MAMET: Yeah, you're right. I don't know what got into me.
GROSS: OK. David Mamet is my guest and he has a new collection of essays called Make Believe Town.
In an essay that is about writing in your new collection, you say -- I really like this: "writing in my experience consists of long periods of hanging out, punctuated by the fugue of remorse at the loss of one's powers and wonder at occasional output in spite of that loss."
Do you still feel that way about writing?
MAMET: Yeah. And I heard something in fact on NPR the other day -- somebody was being interviewed, some writer, and he said that -- that one can only be a poet for the moment that one is writing the last line of a poem. He said before that, one is a failed poet and after that, one is an ex-poet.
Isn't that good?
GROSS: That's very good. Well, what jobs have you failed at before you became a well-known writer?
MAMET: Oh, I think I failed at most of them.
GROSS: What were they?
MAMET: Well, I started out -- I wanted to lay the groundwork, this being America, so I started out with about 16 years of failing at being a student. And then...
MAMET: ... I wasn't a very good cab driver or -- and then I did all those menial jobs that -- actually, I liked work -- I did a lot of working in restaurants as a waiter and as a busboy and doing short-order stuff. I liked that very much. I think I was pretty good at it.
GROSS: Where did you drive a cab?
MAMET: In Chicago.
GROSS: That must have been interesting for you to -- you know, usually the cabbie is the eccentric talker.
GROSS: But in this case, you were probably more the listener and listened to all the eccentric talkers in the back seat?
MAMET: I don't know. I might have been. I think I was probably just driving a cab.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Was it dangerous?
MAMET: Well, I got held up a couple of times. After the second time, I stopped. But I think I just stopped because I became lazy or something. It's a great job. I mean, go to work in the morning with absolutely no money in your pockets, and 15 minutes later, you have enough for breakfast. It was terrific.
And also, at that time we were driving the Checker Marathon cabs, which are those old big yellow cabs that everybody of my age anyway remembers. And they were the only place to get warm in the Chicago winter. They were just -- they were so wonderfully -- it was a great car. The heater was so great that you'd drive all day in a T-shirt.
GROSS: So did anything surprise you about how you reacted to being held up?
MAMET: I -- I think I was kind of stunned. In fact, I was rather stunned both times. And sure, take the money and go. And I never thought that the guy was really going to hurt me, but perhaps he was. The first time -- the first time, I thought he was going to hurt me. The second time, I didn't think he was going to hurt me.
And then I ran into -- the second time, I ran into a cop almost immediately afterward. Maybe I told you this story before? And I said: "that fellow just held me up. I think he's running across over there. You might be able to catch him." And he said -- insisted on taking my name and everything. And he took my name.
And he said: "hey, wait a second -- are you related to Bernie Mamet?" I said: "yeah, he's my Dad." He said: "We bought your house." I said: "get out." He said: "yeah, we bought your house on Euclid Avenue." He said: "did it used to have that cowboy wallpaper?" I said: "I grew up with that wallpaper" -- I said, et cetera, et cetera, while the guy was getting away.
GROSS: David Mamet, recorded in 1996. He wrote the screenplay for Wag The Dog, which just came out on video, and he wrote and directed the current art house hit The Spanish Prisoner.
One of the actors in that film, Ricky Jay (ph), is one of the greatest living sleight-of-hand artists. We just recorded an interview with him which we expect to feature in mid-July.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: David Mamet
High: Essayist, poet, and playwright David Mamet. His latest film, which he wrote and directed, is "The Spanish Prisoner," starring Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon and Steve Martin. His work has been called opinionated, forceful, original and always surprising. Mamet won a Pulitzer Prize for his play "Glengarry Glen Ross" and has written and directed several motion pictures. His most recent book, "Make-Believe Town," is a selection of essays about everything from theater to politics to Judaism.
Spec: Movie Industry; Theater; Arts; David Mamet
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End-Story: David Mamet
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